Sunday, June 15, 2014

Slusher Dolls and Mars Hill '14

Early June is a wonderful time in the world of our music and fun every year.  2014 was especially good
as I was given a set of dancing dolls that were designed and made by the late R O Slusher of Floyd County.  His son and wonderful Old-time guitar player, George,  first told me about the dolls and how they worked a couple of years ago.  Last year I got to see them in action at one his family reunions and was duly impressed.  R O made about 30 pairs of the dolls in his later years as he slowly retired from cattle farming according to another son. Terry.  He had quite the pocket knife skills and painted them with amazing detail.

    As a teacher of claw hammer banjo and advocate for
traditional mountain music I have tried to tie in the local traditions of freestyle flatfoot dancing to the
JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians) program that is in its 3rd year in Floyd County.   In the 1970's and 80's as I was learning about the older local styles of banjo playing, I was drawn to dancing events like the weekly
Sunday afternoon event at Mabry Mill where the sound of claw hammer banjo,  fiddle and guitar were united with the  percussive sounds of  flatfoot dancers who danced in a group on a simple dance floor in the shade nearby.  The music played by the local people was not a performance style like Bluegrass music is.  Rather, it was part of a social scene where people came together to visit, listen, and participate
in a fun activity.  Play parties and dancing have long  been a part of Floyd County's heritage of fun, thus, the Slusher Dolls were  no doubt inspired by people having fun with music.  RO himself apparently was a avid fan of country music and dancing traditions.  He and his wife  made music a big part of their social life.

As luck would have it, I was given a set of Slusher dolls recently and have been learning to operate them as R O designed them.  Clips of my early attempts are on Facebook.  The Mt Airy Fiddler's convention held this past June 6 and 7th was  where the dolls first got a lot of attention around the old-time community.  They were videoed many times and late on Saturday night even entered the dance contest naming the dolls  Richard and Barbara from Mt Airy,  for a popular couple from the local Old-time  scene. 
They won sixth place along with many other dancers as they attempted to put some more fun back into the  flatfooting contest.

Late last summer I was hired to teach intermediate level claw hammer banjo at the annual Blue Ridge Old-Time week held at Mars Hill College in Western NC just after the Mt Airy Fiddler's convention each year.
I knew that the Slusher Dolls would be a hit with the crowd there as well.  I featured  them in my 10 minute concert on Monday night where I named them for former director Hillary Dirlam and her partner Scott.  Of course, they drew a fabulous response as they wildly danced to my banjo playing.
During the week I took them to several of the evening jams and had lots of fun showing them to the

The Slusher dolls  are a challenge to get to dance well  but when I get them warmed up, it is possible to hear the sound of their feet just like with real dancers on the dance board that is a part of their operating equipment.  They are designed to be controlled by a single string looped around the 
musician's little finger which is moving rhythmically to the music.  A banjo in my case is being claw hammered with  two downstrokes per beat which activates the dolls who are suspended over the danced board.  By pulling the string and stroking the strings  simultaneously they tap and twirl about with rubber bands and fishing lure swivels to appear to be a lively dancing duo as long one keeps it up.
Its is rather realistic if I do say so myself.  I intend to take them along on gigs from now on.  Maybe you'll see more clips of their performances in the near future.

Monday, April 28, 2014

New for 2014 - One day workshops

As we are now into Spring of 2014, we have already held our first Saturday-Only workshop and feel good about the attendance and results.  On Friday Feb 28th,  we set up Mac's shop and
got it ready for classes in our local style claw hammer banjo and basic Old-time fiddle class while in the farmhouse we set up for a small group of beginner OT country back-up guitar players.  So, we were ready on Saturday AM March 1 when our students began arriving mostly from the New River Valley.  

Because  there are just two of us,  we called on expert banjoist, professional educator and great friend, Andy Buckman,  from Franklin County  to help us out by leading the  banjo class so Mac could lead the fiddle class.  Jenny would lead the guitar class.  Andy has been Mac's main banjo sidekick on many occasions including his 2005 CD 'I'm Going That Way'  as well as numerous dances and jams over the years.  He has a deep knowledge of the banjo traditions of our area of Southwest Virginia.

 The early morning  air was rather  cool as we gathered in the  slowly warming shop to meet and greet at 9 AM.    Before  getting separated into classes,  we instructors gave an over view of the classes and demonstrated our  individual playing styles.  Our intent was to show the beginners the sound of a basic string band  and to give everyone a sense of how  fiddle, banjo, and guitar work as a team to create a sound that is focused on keeping the 'beat' moving  steadily through the music.  

We broke up into classes to begin working on the basic techniques to get started 'making' music once
tuned up.  No one was a raw beginner  but some of the different musical back grounds made mastering  the 'basics'  more challenging for some than others.  For example: Bluegrass style banjo pickers can have a hard time with right   the claw hammer attack that involves a radical change in the use of the right hand and forearm.  With our group of students new to playing generally,  lots of individual attention was given while practicing in small groups occurred.

Our midday meal was centered around a tasty stew of local venison provided by ceramic artist extraordanaire  Ellen Shankin who was one of the  banjo students. Another local banjo person, Heather Krantz,  provided  homemade bread and fruit to balance the diet and refuel everyone for more work.

The sun had warmed up the outside air nice enough that several of us took a walk up on our land to view Mac's cow-calf pairs and see how rotational grazing is working to improve the quality of the
grassland acreage we have here.

The afternoon class began with Mac playing a few excerpts from his collection of recordings of claw hammer banjo styles of certain old-timers from the region playing and talking about the music and its importance to the community of dancers as it was in their youth circa 1920's & 30's.
Before splitting back up, Mac brought out his iPad with its metronome app to  show students how
to use it and see if they could keep up with some of the slower speeds like 80 BPMs.  We recommend
practicing with one to develop one's sense of keeping time and incorporating a beat into one's sound
as they play.   We wonder how many took the advice.  Metronomes never seem to work right or do they ????
In the remaining time,  we split back into our instrument specific individual classes for more practice on the  simple tunes and basic techniques that had been introduced earlier.  Details of melody and rhythm were worked on and practiced both individually and in small groups until the last 30 minutes when everyone came together to jam on the tunes in a medium slow speed.   

We finally let the weary and tired students  go about 5 PM hoping that we helped them move closer to their goal to be good players of 'good ol mountain music'.   We were tired too...